Straightforward game adaptations make for lousy movies. But the world of videogames and gaming culture is fertile ground for all kinds of fiction.
Nick Cole is a southern California-based army veteran, actor, gamer and novelist, and his latest book “Soda Pop Soldier” asks what happens when videogames are used to settle wars. You can read the book’s first chapter here.
Cole previously wrote a trilogy of books inspired by his love of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and the post-apocalyptic Fallout games, which take place in a retrofuturistic wasteland ravaged by nuclear war. In this interview with Re/code, he talked about his works, influences and the process of turning a Call of Duty-esque game into a sci-fi narrative.
Re/code: At San Diego Comic-Con, you described one of your first books, “The Old Man and the Wasteland,” as Hemingway-meets-Fallout. How did that happen?
Nick Cole: I was in the army, got out of the army and broke my arm while drunkenly careening through the bars of Long Beach. So I found myself sidelined for a little while and challenged myself to read a book a day. One of the books I read was “The Old Man and the Sea.” It really resonated with me. I was looking for work as an actor, and there’s a lot of downtime for reading books and playing videogames.
I was lying in bed and thought, you know, it would be really cool if “The Old Man and the Sea” were set after nuclear war. Writers, when they’ve got nothing else to do and no money, tend to write down their fantasies. The post-apocalyptic thing is kind of a reccurring fantasy with me because it feels like a reset. I took this story of a guy who’s survived for 40 years after a nuclear war, and he’s only had one novel to read, and that’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” I put it up on Amazon in 2011 when the whole digital thing was getting going. People really liked it, it got reviewed on Boing Boing, and it sold 80,000 copies. Harper Collins came in and said, we should do two sequels. Those became the Wasteland Saga.
Do you think having read the original Hemingway or having played an post-apocalyptic game like Fallout are prerequisites for appreciating that series?
No. What I found is — it’s quite sad — most people have not read Hemingway. They’ve been warned off of it. But it’s a great novel. It really speaks to you in your 20s or 30s when life hasn’t really worked out for you. You have to have been kicked around a little bit to get how awesome that novel is, but we lay it on our high schoolers. A lot of reviews, people said no, I haven’t read Hemingway, but maybe I’ll go back and read it now. As far as video gaming, Fallout had a lot of tongue-in-cheek dark humor to it, and this novel was a lot more gritty, dark and serious. I think sometimes the people who’ve played Fallout say, “Well, this is nothing like Fallout.” I think they wanted laser guns and super mutants.
Are there games that you would consider being cultural touchpoints in the same way that Hemingway offers those universal themes to people who’ve been kicked around?
Oh, definitely. For me, the ones that really stand out are Max Payne 1 and 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Fallout and Mass Effect. I like it when games give you that big-picture perspective. Even the Call of Duty single-player campaigns, especially the first ones, you really identify with those characters. I feel like some of the best writing is going on in videogames. And some of the worst, too.
So are there specific games that you had in mind while writing “Soda Pop Solider?”
First off — the Wasteland Saga, it’s emotionally heavy. When I finished writing it, I wouldn’t say I had a breakdown, but I did get so emotional. I wanted to write something that was really, really fun and for me. Videogames are fun, especially first-person shooters like Call of Duty and dungeon crawlers like Diablo or things like Warcraft. I wanted to tell this full-throttle space marine’s tale about videogaming in the future.
But there were some other issues. There are things coming out in videogames getting fairly dark. In Watch Dogs, you can literally hack someone’s personal security camera in their apartment. It kinda gets into voyeurism, and yet we’re all screaming at the NSA for doing this. I’ve played games that got into misogyny, dismemberment, hurting people. “Whoa, why am I playing this?” One of the big points i wanted to make in the book actually comes from one of the villains, and he states, “Is anything wrong with anything?” I addressed that with a section of the novel that’s called “The Black.” It’s basically a Gothic fantasy [game] like Diablo, except there’s a whole criminal mafia that’s using it to indulge. Even playing in The Black is a federal re-education sentence, but the main character needs money so he’s got to go into this very dark world where I was able to address some of those issues.
And the main character at other times is fighting for a big corporation?
Right, he’s a soldier for ColaCorp and does really well at that. But they’re kinda taking a beating from this company called WonderSoft and he needs more money to basically stay in a relationship with his girlfriend.
Who do you think will appreciate “Soda Pop Solider” the most? Are you also hoping to reach people who have zero experience playing games?
Mainly, I think I was trying to go after the market of wargamers and shooters. That is a huge market. But I’ve had a lot of feedback from people who haven’t played videogames of any sort. I think it’s going to have some universal appeal. For gamers, there will be things they recognize from their favorite games. Hopefully this will draw videogamers into reading, which would probably be good for them.
What do you find when you try to translate those familiar elements of games into words? Are there things you have to drop in order to efficiently tell the story?
One of the things I wanted to do, on purpose, was not to go the whole VR route like “Ready Player One.” I didn’t want to make it immersive in that way, I wanted to make it like how you and I play videogames. I concentrated on music, because musical soundtracks can indicate things going on in games, and a cool device that allowed the novel to focus is my version of bullet time. I gave one character the ability to slow down time and he has a recharge meter and things like that. Within the game world, he can crank it down to slo-mo. That was really fun to use in writing.
In many games, death is ephemeral — you can die and die over and over again. Is that true in “Soda Pop Soldier?”
I couldn’t do that in this because it would take away the danger. In the Call of Duty-esque WarWorld, the character can get killed and come back, but because it’s like a professional sport, he can only get killed once per round, or battle. There are several battles throughout the novel. It behooves him, because he’s trying to make money, to stay alive. In The Black, it’s lethal and it’s one time. You’re dead and you’re out. So that’s more of a Battle Royale kind of thing.
Anything else you want readers to know?
I don’t think this is a subject area that’s been touched on a lot. [But] it’s something that people really want to read. Mystery novels are a game of cat and mouse. When we watch “Survivor,” that’s a game, or “The Walking Dead,” it’s “What would I do in that situation?” If you like that kind of thing, you’re going to enjoy this novel. If you like Call of Duty and you’ve played these kinds of games, this’ll be fun for you.